It’s still dark outside, but the Sonoma Baking Company headquarters in Alexandria is in full swing, with the last of the Friday morning batch about to slide out of the ovens.
The warm bready aroma fills the baking floor; it’s comforting and familiar and rolls out of the ovens as the fresh loaves slide down the conveyor belt. They’re off to be hand-packed into crates that will be delivered by sleek black vans to Sydney’s top restaurants and six Sonoma cafes.
Shining a torch deep into the ovens that are still baking reveals rows of hand shaped loaves browning in the heat. These are the last of the small batches for specific orders and, before most of us have brushed our teeth, they’ll be making their way across town to their destinations. But it’s not just the bread that makes the air smell so delicious.
Trays of croissants exhale their own buttery bouquet, while batches of morning buns cool on racks and await their final dusting of cinnamon and sugar. The tantalising smells mingle with the rhythm of orders being sorted and drivers carefully loading the waiting fleet. It’s a beautiful site to behold – and all of it happens so that bread lovers Sydney-wide can enjoy that perfect slice of Sonoma bread. But while it might all run like the well oiled proverbial now, the Sonoma story is one of tireless passion, dedication and (much like the continuing early starts) hard work. It wasn’t always the precisely timed and logistically crafted system that gets our loaves to us today.
The journey to creating Sydney’s best sourdough began in 1997, when brothers Andrew and Christian Connole and their father Kerry decided to restore the local Bellata bakery and its wood fired oven in north-central New South Wales. Their aim was to bake beautiful, traditional Italian bread. None of them were bakers and what might have seemed like a crazy idea to some only fired the team’s drive to succeed. But the real kicker came when Andrew travelled to Northern California in the US and fell in love with the region’s artisan bread movement and its focus on naturally leavened sourdoughs baked in wood fired ovens.
Back home in Australia, with a jar of starter and a newly acquired 100-year-old mixer, the team set about creating the perfect sourdough. For two years the brothers would drive a staggering 450 kilometres from Terrigal to Bellata to knead and bake 300 handmade loaves for dad to sell at the Paddington Markets. But interest, and their customer base, was on the rise. Eventually, demand was so high that the team had to farewell the little Bellata bakery where the dream began and (after a stint in Arncliffe), Andrew now drives the Sonoma operation from the beautiful warehouse bakery in Alexandria.
The space may have changed, with specialty equipment from San Francisco aiding the baking process, but the ethos and hand shaping of each loaf remains the same. The ingredients for the signature sourdough loaves are still only organic flour, filtered water, sourdough starter and sea salt. There are no commercial yeasts or additives and the process is still deliberately slow. It takes 48-hours to make each loaf of sourdough – and there’s nothing quite like seeing the bread production process in action.
On the bakery floor the hard work continues. A small group of bakers clusters around an oversized stainless steel table, punching and folding precisely weighed pillows of dough as they’re slung across the bench from the cutting machine. Each of the men are well muscled and they put huge amounts of energy into the kneading and shaping process. When done right, perfect tension is created in the loaf so that seams are hidden and topside scores open up in the heat of the oven, creating the distinctive ‘ear’ peak on top of each loaf. Friendly banter accompanies the small teams as they attend to mixers (looking like oversized kitchen aids), or manhandle, weigh and cut huge batches of dough ready to be shaped and rested in advance of the next bake.
There’s a morning and an evening bake to ensure that you get your perfect loaf. So as you butter that breakfast toast, we reckon it’s worth taking just a minute to acknowledge the effort that has gone into making it – and then gobble it down with a huge sense of satisfaction.
Watch the story behind the bread. A short movie filmed by Trevor King at the Sonoma Bakery in Alexandria.